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Nigella (Nigella sativa, Ranunculaceae) is a flowering plant found throughout India, Arabia, Asia, and Europe. Nigella flowers range in color from white to blue, with five to 10 petals. The seeds, also known as fennel flower, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander, black seeds, black cumin, and black onion seeds, are used in cooking and in traditional medicine for inflammation, infection, and cancer. The seeds' taste has been likened to a combination of onions, black pepper, and oregano with a slight bitterness. In food preparations, nigella seeds are ground and mixed with honey or sprinkled on salads. Hot water poured on the seeds is used to make a tisane (a hot water infusion). Nigella seeds are added to breads or casseroles, used in canning, and extracted in wine or vinegar.

Nigella constituents have demonstrated immunomodulatory, antioxidant, antiparasitic, antimicrobial, and hepatoprotective effects. Nigellone, a component of the seed, may be useful in the treatment of diarrhea, asthma, and hypertension (See HC 041351-471). Thymoquinone, considered one of the chief constituents, has exhibited anti-epileptic effects in children with refractory seizures. Nigella may aid in relieving symptoms of allergic reactions, but allergic contact dermatitis was reported with topical use. The herb may also help in the treatment of rheumatism. Nigella is also thought to enhance the immune system and aid in opiate withdrawal. Other active ingredients include dithymoquinone (nigellone) and thymol. Nigella seeds also have been used to strengthen hair and nails. Evidence also suggests that nigella may have anticancer properties. The constituents of the seeds, including thymoquinone, reduced the growth and size of tumors in rats; thymoquinone has also been shown to enhance the anticancer effects of doxorubicin in certain cancer cell lines. Injected nigella oil has demonstrated a protective effect against tissue damage caused by radiation in rats. Human studies are needed. Adverse effects are rare, but high doses of nigella oil have reportedly caused liver and kidney damage in rats.

Lori Glenn,  Managing Editor